Darkest Hour: War, class and Winston Churchill

It was not the positive image of Winston Churchill that put me off the film Darkest Hour. It wasn’t the representation of people calling for peace. It wasn’t the historical inaccuracies. It was the portrayal of working class characters, and in paricular Churchill’s brief interaction with a group of working class people on a tube train.

Darkest Hour is primarily about a decision facing the British government in May 1940: to keep on fighting, depite devastating losses and German millitary superiority, or to enter peace negotations with the Nazi regime. It was an unenviable decision, choosing between two horrendous possibilities. The film pits Churchill, who would “never surrender”, against those pushing for a negotiated peace, notably Edward Wood (Viscount Halifax). The film’s bias is clearly in favour of Churchill: an easy postion to cheer with the benefit of hindsight, removed from the millions who died as an invasion of Britain was prevented, more by luck than anything else.

When I was a child, Churchill was frequently presented as an uncomplicated hero. Nowadays, it is much more common to see him potrayed as a flawed hero. Many people are well aware that Churchill was rude, indecisive and an alcoholic. References are less frequent to his racist attitudes, brutality as Home Secretary and opposition to votes for women and free secondary education. However, there are people who recognise all this but still see him as the saviour of Britain during World War Two. If he’s no longer convincing as an unblemished hero, then a flawed hero is still a hero.

Darkest Hour portrays Churchill’s rudeness as a comical, almost endearing quality. Despite my problems with the film’s biases, I appreciated that proponents of a negotiated peace were presented relatively sympathetically and their arguments given a hearing. I was enjoying watching the film, until the scene around three-quarters of the way through in which Churchill spontaneously leaves his government car and travels on the London Underground.

In recognising Churchill’s flaws, the film acknowledges his elite background, mentioning early on that he has never travelled on a tube train. When he enters the tube train later in the film, he talks to seven or eight working class people, to discover what “the people” think about a negotiated peace.

The portrayal is patronising in the extreme. Improbably, they all have exactly the same view – opposition to peace negotations. They are uniformly deferential to Churchill, and offer their views only after he asks them a highly biased question in extremely simplistic terms. The fact that one of them is black seems to be an attempt to ward off assocations of Churchill with racism.

The aristocrats, royals and upper middle class politicians who argue with each other throughout the film are considered intelligent enough to have a range of nuanced views. The working class characters, allowed to appear only briefly, are given only simplistic statements to utter.

Historical inaccuracies are inevitable in films; some flexibility is essential to make the story flow. And I can cope with a film having a different bias to my own. What I can’t cope with is the absurd notion that Churchill decided to rule out peace negotations because of an encounter with “the people” – in the form of a handful of randomly selected individuals on a tube train.

The rights or wrongs of entering peace negotiations in May 1940 should certainly be debated a lot more than they are. More importantly, however, we need to address the way in whch World War Two influences our culture, our politics and our society. Every military action today is equated with World War Two by those who support it. Every tyrant opposed by UK governments is compared to Hitler (but not the many tyrants supported by UK governments). Everyone supporting peace or cuts to military spending is compared, with staggering inaccuracy, to people who backed appeasment in the 1930s. The portrayal of Churchill as a hero is magnified and mlutiplied by the refusal to recognise allied atrocities, as if the greater atrocities of the Nazis make all other actions OK.

Perhaps worst of all, the myth of Britain “standing alone” against Hitler is used to portray war as inevitable and right. This is possible only by blanking out all sorts of facts and possibilities from our collective memory.

That thoughts of World War Two should still exercise so much influence is perhaps unsurprising. This is no reason to be naïve about it, or to refuse to challenge one-sided narratives that continue to be used to justify war, nationalism and militarism today. It is a shame that a film as well acted and directed as Darkest Hour essentially serves as fuel to the militarist myth machine.

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Who is the red poppy designed to remember? The answer might surprise you

Many people in the UK wear a red poppy at this time of year out of a laudable desire to honour and remember the victims of war.

I have often been told by red poppy wearers that they wish to commemorate all those killed in war. It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that this is not the stated purpose of those who produce the red poppy, the Royal British Legion.

According to the LegionRed poppy, the red poppy does not even commemorate all the British dead.

The Legion is quite explicit in stating that the purpose of the red poppy is to honour British military dead. At a stretch, they will commemorate allied military dead. But civilian dead don’t get a look in.

What about civilian stretcher bearers in the Blitz, killed as they rushed to save the lives of others? Shouldn’t they be honoured on Remembrance Day? No, says the Royal British Legion.

As the Legion would have it, the poppies they produce do not honour the innocent children killed in the bombing of (say) Coventry, let alone the equally innocent children killed in Dresden.

If you click on the “What we remember” link on the Royal British Legion’s website, you will found this blatant statement:

“The Legion advocates a specific type of Remembrance connected to the British Armed Forces, those who were killed, those who fought with them and alongside them.”

I do not wish to engage in such partial and sectarian remembrance. But it gets worse. The front page of this year’s Poppy Appeal website includes a large picture of a current soldier, with the headline:

“The poppy doesn’t only support veterans of the past”.

Current members of the forces are now given at least equal, if not more prominent attention, by the Royal British Legion on the web. The Legion clearly has a political position of encouraging support for the British armed forces as an institution, and by implication supporting war as a means of addressing conflict and celebrating military values such as unquestioning obedience.

Of course, the Legion has every right to adopt this position and to make an argument for it. But let’s not pretend it’s politically neutral.

Despite all this, the Legion does some good work. Their website includes a relatively prominent section about supporting veterans with mental health problems. Sadly, this is overshadowed by all the nationalism, militarism and romanticising of war with which their publicity is glutted.
White poppies
I want to commemorate all those killed, injured and bereaved in war. That’s why I wear a white poppy, symbolising the need to remember all victims of war and to honour them by working for peace in the present and the future.

You can buy a white poppy at http://www.ppu.org.uk/ppushop.

Conscription – in 1916 and today

Ninety-nine years ago today (2 March 1916), every unmarried man aged between 18 and 41 in England, Scotland and Wales was “deemed to have enlisted” in the armed forces. It was only a few months before another act was passed, extending conscription to married men.

A few months later, on 1 July, over 19,000 British troops were killed in a single day at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. They were not conscripts, for the first conscripts were still being trained. Nonetheless, conscription made the Somme possible. Commanders were able to send thousands of men to their deaths knowing that were now many more to replace them. Thousands of German and French soldiers joined them in death, fighting for competing sides in an imperial war that had nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with money and power.

In World War One, between 16,000 and 23,000 British men refused to accept conscription and became conscientious objectors (COs). The vast majority of COs were denied exemption by the tribunals set up to deal with them. Many were offered partial exemption, which some accepted but many did not. Over 6,000 COs went to prison, while others were held in work camps run by the Home Office in which conditions were only slightly better than prison. Others – both men and women – were imprisoned for anti-war activism under the terms of the draconian Defence of the Realm Act.

The COs’ witness against militarism is an inspiration today. We no longer have physical conscription in the UK, but it is a reality in much of the world, from Israel to South Korea to Colombia to Eritrea. In the UK, volunteer troops theoretically have the right to leave the forces if they develop a conscientious objection during their term of service. In practice this is not upheld, as shown by the case of Michael Lyons, a member of the navy imprisoned in 2011 after having a change of heart and refusing to use a gun.

In the UK, our bodies are not conscripted. But our money is conscripted, with taxes used to fund the highest military budget in the European Union. Our minds are conscripted, with constant pressure to believe that violence is the only solution to conflict and that soldiers are heroes. Our very language is conscripted, as we say “defence” when we mean warfare, “security” when we mean fear and “conflict” when we mean violence.

The struggle against militarism and warfare is as vital in 2015 as it was 99 years ago. Earlier today, the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Burghfield, Berkshire, was peacefully blockaded by people determined to stop the development of nuclear arms. Yesterday, thousands of people marched in Moscow against Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The Russian and British people have more in common with each other than they do with their warmongering governments. Every war opposed, every weapon disarmed, every aspect of militarism denied, every refusal to put our nationality ahead of our humanity is an act of resistance to the idols of violence that were rejected by the pacifists during World War One.

Harry Stanton was a blacksmith’s son from Luton. As a Quaker, he refused to accept conscription in 1916. He was forced into the army, where he refused to obey orders. Within four months, he had experienced imprisonment, torture, hunger and a death sentence that was commuted to ten years in prison. He was 21.

As Harry listened to his death sentence being commuted, he felt that “the feeling of joy and triumph surged up within me, and I felt proud to have the privilege of being one of that small company of COs testifying to a truth which the world as yet had not grasped, but which it would one day treasure as a most precious inheritance”.

Nearly a century later, we are still struggling to grasp that truth. Let’s honour the COs’ legacy by continuing their struggle. We need to object, conscientiously, to warfare and militarism today.

If you can play football on Christmas Day, why shoot each other on Boxing Day?

Shortly after Christmas 1914, an order was issued by John French, the general in charge of the British troops on the Western Front. He had heard of the informal truces that had broken out along the front on Christmas Day. He ordered that such events must never be repeated. A year later, ahead of the following Christmas, soldiers were reminded that they would be charged with disobeying orders if there was another truce.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 varied along the front. The frequently mentioned football matches may have happened in only a couple of places. More commonly, soldiers met in No Man’s Land, shook hands, chatted and swapped food.

After the war, John French conveniently forgot that he had issued orders against truces. He instead spoke of the Christmas Truce of 1914 as an example of soldierly chivalry. Pro-war politicians and commentators today also tend to talk positively about the Christmas Truce, as if it were an innocuous fluffy event that we can all celebrate. I think they would have taken a different view if British soldiers had chatted and exchanged food – and even played football – with enemy soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Falklands.

The spontaneous truces of 100 years ago must surely have undermined the propaganda of each side’s government, which sought to portray the soldiers on the other side as inhuman fiends. When people meet their enemies and discover how much they have in common, they become a threat to those who want them to fight each other.

The question we should all be asking is the question asked by the pacifist Labour MP Keir Hardie when he head about the Christmas Truce a century ago. “Why are men who can be so friendly sent out to kill each other?” he asked. “They have no quarrel… the workers of the world are not ‘enemies’ to each other, but comrades.”

If it’s acceptable to play football with someone on Christmas Day, why is it OK to shoot him on Boxing Day?

There has been much criticism of Sainsbury’s Christmas advertisement this year, which uses the story of the Christmas Truce to promote a supermarket. I had expected to be annoyed or angered by the advert, so was surprised when I first viewed it.

True, the advert exists to make sales for a corporation. It was not made to draw attention to the futility of war. Nonetheless, this is to some extent what it does. After they have shared food and played games, the soldiers depicted in the advert return to their trenches and continue firing at each other. Some of the people who have watched the advert must be asking themselves why.

The Christmas Truce of 1914 was a spontaneous event. It was not explicit disobedience, as the orders against such truces had not been issued at that point. Nonetheless, it was a rejection of the propaganda that demonised the enemy. If not a mutiny, it was at least an informal strike, celebrating common humanity over the demands of militarism and jingoism.

No wonder the generals on both sides were worried. If they had kept on “fraternising”, these soldiers might have brought the war to an end. That’s why I’ll celebrate the Christmas Truce – because it was a rebellion against war.

The hypocrisy of Emily Thornberry’s critics

Welcome to the baffling world of political priorities in 2014.

Last month, the multi-millionaire welfare minister David Freud suggested that some disabled people are “not worth” the minimum wage. He is still in his job. Last week, Bob Geldof implied that not only poverty but also disease can be solved by the performances of super-rich celebrities. Most of the coverage did not even mention that there were those who disagreed with his approach.

On Thursday, however, Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigned from the front bench after sending an ambiguous tweet with a photo of a house decked out in large English flags, with a white van in the drive. Her tweet has made the front page of several national newspapers.

On Friday, the Sun devoted Page 1 to covering Thornberry’s “sneers”, Pages 4-5 to an interview with the owner of the house in question and Page 8 to a scathing editorial attacking Labour’s “ugly, snobbish prejudices”. If you turn over to Page 11, you can read the latest full-page piece by Katie Hopkins, a Sun columnist who has made her name by attacking working class people. Earlier this year, she said that unemployed people should be obliged to wear uniforms in the street.

The Daily Mail blamed the tweet on a “condescending, arrogant” elite. This is a paper that demonises benefit recipients on an almost daily basis. David Cameron accused Thornberry of “sneering at people who work hard”. On Cameron’s watch, wages are so low that millions of people who work hard are relying on tax credits to top up their wages, while those unable to work due to disability find their livelihoods snatched away.

Attacking working class people in general, and the poorest in particular, has become a routine activity for many mainstream politicians and columnists in the UK. It seems to be acceptable to attack working class voters, destroy their services and remove their benefits. What appears to be unacceptable is to criticise working class people who may be nationalistic.

I wrote more about this situation for an article in Politics.co.uk, published yesterday. You can read it by clicking here. In addition, I recommend two articles by people who have articulated the issues far better than I have: the first by my Ekklesia colleague Savi Hensman and the second by Sarah Ditum at the New Statesman.

Exeter students reject arguments in favour of World War One

I had the privilege last week of speaking at Exeter University Debating Society, opposing the motion that “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I am pleased to say that those present voted against the motion by seventy votes to forty.

The motion was proposed by Andrew Murrison, a minister for Northern Ireland and the government’s Special Representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. He was supported by Daniel Steinbach, a historian from King’s College London. I was pleased to be joined in opposing the motion by Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition. The debate was chaired by Exeter student Lewis Saffin.

Prior to the debate, I had pointed out on my blog that Andrew Murrison’s support for the motion undermined his stated desire not to glorify the first world war. When it came to the debate, Andrew said he did “not like” the wording of the motion but would instead argue that World War One was a just war. This is hardly the same thing, so I’m not clear why Andrew agreed to propose the motion. However, in voting against the motion, the students seemed to be ejecting his claim about just war as well as the wording of the motion itself.

The text below equates roughly to the words I used in the five minutes I was given at the beginning of the debate. Having drafted it beforehand, it inevitably varied slightly in practice, but the substance remained the same.

———————
What is a victory? How can anything that leads to the deaths of tens of millions of people be described as a victory? How can something that leaves a world in ruins, that leaves millions of people starving to death and susceptible to disease be a victory? The notion of victory in war, any war, is an absurdity. As Jeanette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first female member of the US Congress, put it, “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake”.

The ending of the war was not great for the British people. The war led to a massive national debt, next to which the current British debt – about which we hear so much – pales into insignificance. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, promised that after the war Britain would be “a land fit for heroes”. Instead, there was mass poverty and unemployment. My own great-grandfather, who fought at the Somme, was awarded five medals during the war. After the war, unemployed and struggling to feed his children, he was forced to sell all five medals in an attempt to survive. What “great victory” did he have – or the thousands and thousands like him, thrown into poverty by a government for whom they had fought?

The poverty in Germany by the end of the war was much more severe. The British government, backed by the pro-war media, had justified the war on the grounds that Belgium must be defended from German aggression. It is true that Germany invaded Belgium and that atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. I don’t deny it for a moment. I condemn those atrocities. Yet as the war went on, the British navy blockaded Germany with a clear intention of starving Germans into surrender. Thousands of German and Austrian civilians were starved to death as a result, killed by the British government as surely as if British troops had been sent to stab their bayonets into them directly. There is nothing great about mass murder.

Justifying war with reference to Belgium was a piece of staggering hypocrisy. In 1914, newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times, which only days before had been condemning proposals for home rule for Ireland, transformed themselves overnight into champions of “the rights of small nations”. British troops had been committing atrocities in colonial wars for decades. Horatio Kitchener, who was made Secretary for War in 1914, had himself commanded the troops that carried out the Omdurman massacre in 1898.

This year, with the centenary of the outbreak of war, we’ve been focussing a lot on how the war started. I wonder if we’ll be any more honest in four years’ time, when we consider how the war ended. From 1916 until 1918, there was increasing discontent among working class Germans, both civilians and troops. There were strikes in German arms factories and occasional mutinies, encouraged by the spread of socialist ideas and the realisation of the injustice of the war. By October 1918, with Germany starving and losing the war, there were mass mutinies in the German navy and working class protests around Germany. The Kaiser abdicated. It was not the Kaiser but his successors who signed the armistice. Yes, allied troops were winning the war by October 1918, but it was the German working class who ensured that the war ended at this point. If only British troops had also mutinied in large numbers at the same time, things might have turned out a let better for people in both Britain and Germany.

Even now, there are those who tell us that World War One was necessary to defeat German militarism and stop Germany dominating Europe. I don’t know how that sounded to people in India or Malawi or Ireland, whose countries were controlled by a British Empire whose rulers spoke about resisting German imperialism. The reality is that most people in Britain and Germany had more in common with each other than they did with their rulers. That’s why, on the eve of war, over 100,000 people demonstrated against war in Berlin. Thousands more demonstrated throughout Britain – including 15,000 in London and 5,000 in Glasgow, according to media reports at the time.

Contrary to the impression given by the majority of books and documentaries on World War One, there was an active pacifist movement in Britain throughout the war. In July 1915, a territorial army officer in Lancashire, a Captain Townroe, wrote to Kitchener reporting that “over a hundred organisations in West Lancashire had distributed ‘Stop the War’ literature in the last six weeks”. The No-Conscription Fellowship, the leading peace group at the time, produced a semi-illegal newspaper that had 100,000 readers in 1916. These figures hardly fit with the oft-repeated claim that almost everyone supported the war. Over 6,000 people in Britain went to prison for opposing the war. The majority were conscientious objectors who were denied exemption from the army, while others were locked up for illegal activism, such as handing out pacifist leaflets in the street.

The end of the first world war was not a victory, for millions of people were killed or impoverished. It was not a success for the British people, who had far more in common with their German counterparts than with their rulers. And it certainly was not great. It is not being British that makes us great, but being human. We can only be truly great, and we can only end war, when we give our loyalty not to a nation-state, but to humanity as a whole.

Tory minister to argue that World War One was “a great British victory”

Andrew Murrison MP is the government’s special representative on the World War One Centenary Commission. At Exeter University tomorrow (14 November), he will propose the motion “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.” I have been asked to oppose the motion.

The government has denied accusations that it wants to use the centenary to glorify the first world war, or to glorify war in general. This is hardly consistent with sending the minister responsible to propose a motion that implies the war was successful and something to be celebrated.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak against the motion that Andrew Murrison is proposing. I am looking forward to the debate. Andrew Murrison’s fellow proposer will be Daniel Steinbach of King’s College London. Opposing the motion alongside me will be Jim Brann of the Stop the War Coalition.

In addition to his responsibilities around World War One, Andrew Murrison is a junior minister for Northern Ireland and MP for South-West Wiltshire.

If you study or work at Exeter University, you can attend the debate at 7.00pm on Friday 14 November. There are more details here.